By Dmitry Orlov
Source: Club Orlov
Freedom of speech is rather important. If people do not feel free to express their thoughts, then all they can do is endlessly repeat what has been said before, creating an echo chamber which no new understandings can ever penetrate. What they repeat may have been a tissue of lies from the outset, or it may have been true or relevant once, but will become outdated and, essentially, as good as a lie.
Lies beget ignorance. Ignorance begets fear. Fear begets hatred. And hatred begets violence. The ability to speak our minds and to listen to others—even those who are said to be our enemies—is what separates us from wild beasts. Deprive us of this right, and sure as rain we degenerate into subhumans who claw at the ground, howl at the moon and gnaw on raw human flesh… or something like that.
The practice of free speech is quite a demanding art. Just being able to make intelligible sounds with your mouth or to poke at a keyboard in a way that pleases the spell-checker makes you no more an expert practitioner of free speech than does the ability to get up from your chair and walk to the bathroom make you a ballet dancer. Free speech encompasses the expression of fact and opinion. Facts cannot be fake, or you can stand accused of libel or of spreading disinformation. Opinion cannot be incendiary, or you can stand accused of undermining public order.
To be on the safe side, free speech should not contain performatives—speech acts that seek to alter the state of the world. Calls to action, unsolicited advice, coercion, intimidation, threats, personal categorizations and the like can all reasonably be banned without hurting the exercise of free speech at all. Demagoguery—attempts to manipulate public sentiment by exploiting popular desires, fears and prejudices—is rather unhelpful, although to some extent unavoidable. Some forms of free speech should be rightfully privileged over the rest: the literary arts (both fiction and nonfiction), cinematography, music, visual and performance arts are at the top; political slogans shouted over swine-toned music at an audience of sloppy drunks are definitely near the bottom.
The quality of society is directly proportional to the quality of its exercise of free speech, and to assure high quality some form of quality control is usually called for. Governments often have to backstop this need by legislating against certain forms of speech. The older standard against incendiary speech or speech that may cause a panic—shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater—is justified as a matter of public safety. Newer standards against hate speech and discrimination are on shakier ground. They are essentially gag orders that drive the exercise of certain forms of speech underground, thereby making it harder to regulate and more dangerous. The expectation that banning “hate speech” will prevent hatred is unrealistic; nor is the expectation that haters can be compelled to do their hating in silence. Likewise, banning discriminatory speech can only suppress overt expressions of discrimination but not the behavior itself, making it more intractable, since nothing short of a lobotomy can prevent people from discriminating against those they find disagreeable.
Aside from government-provided backstops (which are blunt, inaccurate instruments) most of what provides for high-quality free speech is self-control and, to the extent that it is needed, self-censorship. Essentially, every negative form of free speech—disinformation, libel, demagoguery, manipulation, incendiary rhetoric, etc.—reduce the level of respect and trust between the speaker and the audience. Taken to an extreme, the concept of free speech itself becomes superfluous as everybody manifests their ignorance while spouting their worthless opinions without bothering to listen to anyone else—because everyone else is equally ignorant and their opinions are equally worthless and meaningless. The only thing that can prevent this backslide into worthlessness and meaninglessness is high standards of social adequacy.
But how can such high standards persist in a world of trolls and bots, of concocted false narratives endlessly blasted out at full volume, where a thought that is significantly longer than a tweet simply cannot be expressed? How can they be enforced if the modern value system requires tolerance, nondiscrimination and inclusiveness toward all—including the most miserable miscreants—lowering the price of admission to public discourse to zero? Surprisingly, it can, and it does persist: some writers find their readers and some performers find their audiences—somehow. Their numbers aren’t huge, but then, since quality is almost always inversely proportional to quantity, their small numbers don’t matter that much.
In fact, these numbers are so small that to ascribe any sort of significant agency to those who pay attention, or to those to whom they pay attention. The proper and essential function of free speech is not to somehow remake the world in one’s own image (you should consider yourself lucky if you can bring about a change in yourself, never mind make a difference in your own family or neighborhood). Its function is to keep you sane and grounded and to prevent you from cascading down through lies, ignorance, fear, hatred and violence, eventually degenerating into wild beasts who claw at the ground, howl at the moon and chew on each other…
The concocted false narratives endlessly blasted out at full volume make such work difficult. The narratives that are designed to generate a misplaced sense of agency are perhaps the most difficult veil to shred. No matter how many times I try to explain that the US is not a democracy and that it doesn’t matter who is president, these facts seem to just bounce off people’s heads. When I try to explain certain facts about technology—for instance, that wind and solar power unfortunately just don’t work and that the countries that pursue them are setting themselves up for economic disaster, but that for all of its dangers nuclear power does seem to have a very important future (although only in certain countries)—in response people demand to know whether or not I am “in favor” of nuclear power.
What a ridiculous question! That’s like you asking your flush toilet what it thinks of sewage treatment or your office chair whether it is in favor of a sedentary lifestyle. Just like the office chair and the toilet you and I, with respect to nuclear power, are not subjects but objects. If you are reading this, then you are willy-nilly in favor of nuclear power, because if the nuclear reactors were off your screen would be blank and you’d be sitting in the dark with the heat or the air conditioning not working. But that’s a false choice—simply because it isn’t on offer—any more than an office chair or a toilet can decide whether it wishes to be sat on or not.
And now there is another development that is making the exercise of free speech even more difficult: the phenomenon of “deplatforming.” Various companies, including Twitter, Facebook, PayPal, Patreon and various others, have taken it upon themselves to become arbiters of free speech and interpreters of the First Amendment. Their conceit is that their user base forms a “community” upon which they are entitled to impose “community standards.” In fact, they are privately owned for-profit companies and their clients are individuals or other companies, not communities. They may try to argue that they are publishers of some sort, and publishers are entitled to maintaining an editorial policy, but there is an unbridgeable gap between the editorial process and just typing some text and clicking “publish.” In fact, what they are attempting to do is perhaps best described as vigilante censorship. The most that they are entitled to do is refer their users for prosecution if there is reason to believe that their users have violated specific laws.
I became aware of this new “deplatforming” menace a couple of months ago, when some of my readers started abandoning Patreon after it deplatformed certain people. Prior to that my readership on Patreon had been growing nicely, but then the growth stalled. I’ll never know—and don’t really care—what was behind these decisions, since I don’t see them as legitimate. Typical parting comments from my readers were:
“You crossed the line with censorship and I cannot support this company.”
“I believe in freedom of speech. Censorship is not a virtue. Shame on you.”
“Patreon should not be a moral arbiter. You are supposed to be a payment platform.”
“This site cannot be trusted to support free speech.”
In short, Patreon’s censorship, which it disingenuously called “community standards,” was costing me money, and so I complained:
“Your editorial policy is costing me money. Since Patreon is just a paywalled blogging platform I don’t understand why you should have an editorial policy at all. If you find that your clients are violating state or federal laws you should refer them for prosecution; if not, I honestly do not understand what gives you the reason or the right, or the legal competence, to act as interpreters of the First Amendment.”
The answer I got back was rather terse: “…we do not disclose any details surrounding creator page removals…” First, that isn’t an answer to my question. Second, it shows a remarkable degree of contempt for any sort of fairness. Secret tribunals that result in “removals,” that are based on vague, private, arbitrary rules, that refuse to disclose the basis of their decisions, that cause financial losses but refuse acknowledge them or to compensate for them… doesn’t that sound just a tiny bit fascist?
And so I set up a SubscribeStar account where I publish all the same materials as on Patreon, and to which my readers have been gradually migrating. SubscribeStar is not quite as feature-rich as Patreon (yet) and it has been banned by PayPal (not a big loss; my readers seem to hate PayPal) but it does have the advantage of being honest: it is simply a blogging platform integrated with a paywall.
Meanwhile, the “deplatforming” has only grown worse. Most recently, CNN aired a public denunciation of RT (which it accused of being Russian), and based on this denunciation Facebook saw it fit to ban RT from Soapbox, Waste-Ed, Backthen as well shut down a personal project “In The Now” by the American journalist Anissa Naouai (because she works for RT). These were projects with millions of subscribers and billions of views. CNN’s denunciation was phrased as follows: these projects influence America’s young people! The bloody Russians are at it again, contaminating “our precious bodily fluids”!
None of this has anything at all to do with Russia, or the Russian government, or Putin personally. RT is government-financed, but so is BBC (which, it has now been admitted, lied about the fake chemical attacks in Syria’s Douma, causing Trump to unleash a volley of cruise missiles on Syria, most of which, luckily, the Syrians managed to shoot down). But while the British may lie as they wish (and provoke war crimes as a result) the Russians aren’t allowed to say anything at all—because they are Russian.
To understand the rationale behind this bout of Russophobia, it is important to understand that it has nothing to do with “containing Russia” or anything of the sort (that project has already failed). Instead, Russophobia neatly serves the internal political needs of the US and other Western countries. Two trends—the gradual suppression of free speech and the gradual dehumanization of Russians—go hand in hand. Free speech can be suppressed because of “Russian trolls” and election results can be manually rearranged as needed because of “Russian meddling.”
What makes such measures necessary? The West is experiencing an entire series of crises that is beginning to form the classical pattern defined by Lenin as the revolutionary situation: the elites can no longer rule as before while their subjects can no longer live as before. Western establishment (primarily its Deep State component) is forced to confront this problem. How can it preserve its power and maintain control, all without changing course or even swapping out it deeply unpopular public-facing figureheads? It has decided to deal with this crisis by suppressing the public will. Since such suppression is incompatible with maintaining the fiction of democratic governance, democracy has got to go. That’s where the Russians come in handy: if the voters don’t vote as programmed, then an entire election can be annulled because of “Russian meddling.” “Russian trolls” and Russian “fake news” are helpful too: they offer an excuse for suppressing free speech.
Having a phantom enemy is very helpful. First, there is nothing like the fear of an external enemy to force people to rally around their ruling elites. Second, since the enemy is a phantom, there is no danger of defeat in an actual war. But there is another danger: in the process of vilifying this phantom enemy, Russians as an ethnos are being progressively dehumanized. And the problem is that dehumanizing the enemy always results in degeneracy—not of the enemy, but of the dehumanizers themselves. Inevitably, it is the dehumanizers who end up running around on all fours, howling at the moon and having each other for dinner. Lies engender ignorance; ignorance engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence. At some point a horrific crime against Russians will take place, which will baptize both the Western elites and their Untermenschen in Russian blood, tying them together with bonds of criminal complicity. (This scenario has already been tested out in Eastern Ukraine.)
Before our eyes the most reactionary and the most chauvinistic and homicidal parts of Western financial elites are transforming Western “democracy” into a model terrorist dictatorship. But it is very hard to see what they could possibly hope to achieve other than the physical destruction of their own populations—if that can be considered an achievement. Perhaps their actual achievement will be in being able to carry out this destruction without having their own populations even notice that it is happening, lost as they are in a world of delusions fashioned out of false narratives endlessly blasted at them at high volume. We should feel lucky that a few voices are still able to pierce through the Bedlam, although we don’t know for how much longer. In the meantime, take a look around. This is what fascism looks like.